A Guide to Ethnographic Interviewing in UX Research

Uncover User Stories with Ethnographic Interviews Beyond Data.

Silas Silikhe
3 min readMay 16, 2024

In the world of UX research, understanding users goes beyond simple data points. Ethnographic interviewing offers a powerful technique to delve into the human experience, uncovering the “why” behind user behavior and interactions. Unlike traditional interview formats with a set agenda, ethnographic interviews empower users to share their experiences and perceptions freely. Imagine an informal conversation in a natural setting, fostering a deeper connection that reveals hidden complexities in the user journey.

Benefits for Beginners and Advanced Researchers Alike

Ethnographic interviewing caters to researchers of all experience levels. Beginners can leverage this method to:

  • Uncover the “Why”: Move beyond surface-level data and explore the motivations behind user actions. Understanding the “why” is crucial for creating products that resonate with users’ needs.
  • Open Exploration: When the user experience landscape seems uncharted, ethnographic interviews provide a valuable tool to explore unanticipated aspects and hidden user behaviors.

For seasoned UX researchers, ethnographic interviewing unlocks the ability to:

  • Unravel Complexity: Got a tangled web of user experiences? Ethnographic interviews can help untangle it, revealing the intricate details and nuances that influence user behavior.
  • Connect the Dots: Explore the relationships users have with various features and functionalities. This holistic approach helps researchers understand how different aspects of the UX journey fit together.

Understanding When It’s Not the Right Approach

While a powerful tool, ethnographic interviewing isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Here’s when to consider alternative methods:

  • Need for Precise Data: Ethnographic interviews are qualitative in nature, providing rich insights but not necessarily precise numbers. If highly accurate data is your goal, consider quantitative research methods like surveys or A/B testing.
  • Surveying a Large Audience: This method is built for deep dives with a limited number of participants. To gather data from a wider audience, surveys are a more efficient tool.

Building Trust: The Foundation for Successful Interviews

Ethical considerations are paramount when conducting ethnographic interviews. Here’s how to build trust and ensure a productive session:

  • Transparency is Key: Inform participants about your research goals and obtain their informed consent.
  • Authenticity Matters: Avoid deception. Be upfront about your role as a researcher.
  • Respectful Communication: Develop a clear research brief and interview guide to demonstrate respect for participants’ time and experiences.

The Art of Asking Great Questions

The quality of your questions directly impacts the value of the insights you gather. Here are some effective question-asking techniques:

  • Paint a Picture: Use descriptive questions to encourage users to share their typical experiences with a product or service. (e.g., “Tell me about a day using this app.”)
  • Go Deeper: Follow up with “why” questions to understand the reasoning behind user actions and responses. (“What challenges do you face when using this feature?”)
  • Consider the Environment: Explore how users’ surroundings influence their experience. (“Where do you typically use our website?”)

Asking Like a Pro:

  • Focus on Use over Meaning: Instead of asking what something means, ask for specific examples of how users interact with it.
  • Open-Ended is Your Friend: Encourage elaboration with open-ended questions, allowing users to share their unique perspectives.
  • Active Listening Matters: Pay close attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues to gain a holistic understanding of the user experience.
  • Confirm Understanding: Briefly summarize what you’ve heard to ensure you’ve captured the participant’s perspective accurately.

Food for Thought: Deepen Your Understanding

Ethnographic interviewing opens a door to a deeper understanding of user experience. Consider these questions to further explore its potential:

  • How can UX researchers seamlessly integrate ethnographic interviewing into their research process?
  • How can insights from user responses be used to create a more user-centered product?
  • What are the potential roadblocks of ethnographic interviewing, and how can we overcome them?

By incorporating ethnographic interviewing techniques, you can unlock the secrets of user experience and design products that truly resonate with your target audience. This approach empowers researchers to move beyond basic data points and delve into the rich tapestry of human experience that shapes user behavior.



Silas Silikhe

Step into my tech world, where I share insights on Product Design and Software Development for impactful empowerment. www.silikhe.com